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Build it and They Will Come

The connection between school attendance and student success seems very simple – if students are at school, they will have better learning outcomes. Conversely, if students are chronically absent from our buildings, their success will be limited. Again, a simple correlation. However, so many schools across the country experience issues with chronic absenteeism. The question I have is why?

Context

As a Vice Principal in a large (for our community) High School, part of my responsibility is to manage issues around attendance. I use our data tracking tools, teacher, and parent feedback to look at attendance. When students are absent without some kind of excuse, we try to help get them back in the building. For some students, coming down to my office and having a chat about their unexcused absences is enough – they make the correction and attend their classes. For others, that is not the case. We do have students who would qualify as chronically absent. In the case of these students, we do have a variety of discipline measures we can employ to encourage them to come back to class.

The Human Touch

What I am finding, is that there are times when, even after using the variety of tools we have available, students continue to be chronically absent from school. As I stated above, I want to know why. Perhaps it has to do with the composition of our student body – we have a large number of ELL students and refugee students. However, the issues with chronic absenteeism stretches across all of our students and is not limited to one group.

Another possibility is a lack of meaningful connection between students and staff. A wide array of research suggests that the most resilient students have a connection with at least one, non parental adult in their life. I would argue our teachers do an excellent job of trying to make positive, meaningful relationships with their students. We utilize a teacher advisor model with our students where each student has a teacher that acts in a mentorship role with them.

I am certain there are other possible motives for students to not be in our building – lack of engagement in classrooms, historical patterns of absenteeism, etc. As such, it will take some time to look at all the reasons.

Earlier this week, I read about a program that has just begun in Rockyview School Division related to eliminating chronic absenteeism. The initial results of the program look very promising. I have made some arrangements to speak with the directors of the project to learn more. One thing I do know about the project is they began to utilize a personalized approach to help students get back to classes. This is done through individual, personal calls home, not through the use of a robo-dialer. In addition, the efforts of the project seem to be on a community scale. I guess the adage “it takes a village to raise a child” rings true.

Next Steps

For me, the next steps are many. I am going to speak to the directors of the program in Rockyview to learn how it is set up and find out whether it can be brought to our division. In addition, we need to gain a better understanding of why our students make the choice not to come to school.

My motivation for looking into this is simple – I want the students in my school to succeed to the best of their ability. I want to ensure we provide them with the opportunity to do so. If there are changes we can make to encourage our students to come to school more often, I believe we have the obligation to make those changes.

Should you have any insights into how to help eliminate, or at least reduce, chronic absenteeism, I would appreciate hearing from you.

Have a great day!

Sean

The Learning Leader

This is the End

This week, brought the end of the first semester at my school. As it has been sometime since I was in a school full time, I forgot how frenetic the pace is. From the moment we began the semester, I was busy. In fact, I had to find a different way to describe how things were when people asked me about my new role and how things were going. I felt that I couldn’t keep saying that it was good but I was busy as that just became a constant state.

In November, I attended a conference for new administrators. One of the speakers asked us to take a moment and think about all the things we do in the day. As all of us agreed we were very busy, the idea was for us to reflect on the items that kept us busy. I made a list of all the things I do throughout the day. What I saw actually surprised me.

The Disciplinarian

When I began my new position, I read a number of articles on leadership styles. One style described in some literature was the disciplinarian – one who takes the approach that leadership is best accomplished through the use of a firm hand and punishment coupled with rewards. This is not who I am. I believe the development of meaningful relationships are key to addressing these issues. I am fortunate to work with a staff that believes this as well. However, during the first semester, I found that the bulk of what I did involved discipline issues. I spent time dealing with kids who skipped classes or were constantly late for classes. I dealt with students who were involved in fights or who were not completing their assigned tasks in the classroom. The school has policies related to these issues. I worked within the policy framework that exists and tried to manage all of the issues brought to my attention. I will admit that I did not speak with every single student who skipped a class or did not complete their homework. I tried to address the most significant issues – the students who were struggling the most with attendance or with their grades. Even then, I am not sure if I was as effective as I could have been.

The Observer

One really satisfying aspect of my job is that I get to visit classrooms in our school. I have a responsibility to observe and provide feedback to a specific group of teachers in our school. The administration team divides the teaching team and we complete two formal observations with our teachers throughout the course of the year. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this throughout the semester. I was able to sit down with my teaching colleagues and discuss the teaching and learning going on in their classrooms. I got to see the students interact with each other and with their teacher. I learned a lot too. I saw different ways to approach teaching and learning.

I dropped in on classes for informal observations and chats with teachers. Again, this was a rewarding part of what I did during the semester. However, I think I can do a better job of this next semester. I think I need to make myself more visible during non-instructional time as well. This is something I will work on in the coming semester.

The Student

In Alberta, our professional obligations as laid out in the Teaching Quality Standard, include the concept of teachers as lifelong learners. This is a concept that I believe very firmly in. We need to continually look at what we do in our classrooms and our schools to ensure the time we spend with students is effective. As a student of education and teaching, I still have a lot to learn. I would like to learn how to better address the issue of attendance in our school. Why do students make the decision to skip classes? If I’m honest, I made that decision a few times while I was in High School. But why do some of our students chronically miss classes? That is a question I would like to address, and, in doing so, hopefully come up with a method to bring our students back to classes.

I would also like to learn how to best address learning difficulties in our classrooms. Why do we have students who do not succeed? I recognize this is a complex question with more than one possible answer. There are so many variables at play. But, I want to spend some time looking at the factors we have control over and examine the impact they have on promoting, or not promoting, student learning in our classes.

One other item I would like to learn more about is how to further enhance and develop positive relationships in our school. When asked, our students generally describe our school as a friendly, safe environment. Our teachers say the same thing. However, I do see areas where that is not the case. I dealt with issues related to bullying and fighting during the first semester. I would like to know if there is more we can do as a community to address some of these issues. How can we promote a culture of mutual respect and care where all of our students, and our staff feel they are capable, contributing members of a caring community.

The Next Semester

I am excited at what the next semester will bring for our school. I am more confident about approaching some of the day to day management tasks that I am required to do. Over the past few months, I learned the policies and procedures I need to follow as we run a large school. I hope I will have more time to address the items I would like to learn more about. That is where I hope to spend the bulk of my time in the coming months. Perhaps I will find more time to write as well.

Thank you for spending some time reading my thoughts. As always, comments and feedback are welcome.

Have a great day,

Sean

 

The Great One

When I was ten years old, my parents split. It was traumatic for a number of reasons. There were a number of people, teachers, friends, family, that attempted to help make sense of the situation. That, in and of itself, is admirable. A family separation is a difficult thing. Sticking around and trying to help is difficult. One family/friend that was there through all of the breakup was Kelsey Ferguson.

Kelsey was one of my best friends. We lived about five houses away from each other. We went to the same school and were in the same classes. We were inseparable. The change in my family status meant that we moved away from each other. When my mom left my dad, we moved to a neighbourhood quite some distance removed from where I was previously. This changed quite a few of my neighbourhood relationships.

But, the move didn’t really impact my relationship with Kelsey. We had been friends for a long time. We rode bikes together and played superheroes together. We, were inseparable. One of the fun things we did was go to his parents jewelry store – Diamond Magic – and play mini sticks with the Oilers. You see, Kelsey and I grew up in Sherwood Park watching the Edmonton Oilers of the early 1980’s. The heyday. These were our idols. Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey, Jari Kuri, and of course, Wayne Gretzky. For some reason all of these guys, the guys we idolized, went to Diamond Magic to get their jewelery done. So, when there was a promotion at Diamond Magic, we were there, with these young, amazing hockey players.

We didn’t think much of it at the time. But, now, as a 42 year old looking back at his childhood, it is an amazing thing. Playing mini sticks in a jewelry store with some of the most amazing hockey players of all time is truly unbelievable. But, my story gets better.

One evening, a few months after my parents split, I was invited to Kelsey’s house for supper. We hung out and played, as ten year olds will do. But then, things changed. In walked Vicki Moss and her boyfriend, Wayne Gretzky. Really, given my experience with the rest of the Oilers team, this should not have been such a big deal. But it was. This was The Great One. Even at ten years old, I knew this was something special. Having fondu with this unassuming, quiet 24 year old was special. He didn’t say much. He asked me if I played hockey and how that was going. But that was enough.

Really, the exchange wasn’t much. But, now at 42, I know, I will never forget it. I have often hoped that I would get the chance to tell Wayne Gretzky how much those few minutes mean to me. I was a hurting 10 year old kid who got to have supper with his idol. I won’t pretend that those few moments solved the problems in my life. But, they certainly had a huge impact on me.

The one thing that is clear to me from this event in my life is that relationships are key. They are the foundation for what we are able to do in our work with kids. When they know we are with them, amazing things can happen. I hope, at one point, Wayne sees this and realizes what an impact he had on my life.

But, if nothing else, I hope this story stands as a testament to the power of relationships and what our kids need from us everyday. So, tomorrow, as your week begins, be Wayne Gretzky for your kids.

All the best,

Sean

 

 

On Leadership

This school year, I began a new position as Vice Principal. It is a position I’ve held before, albeit in a different school in a different system. During my previous time as a VP, I felt I was ready for the challenges that I would face. I was excited and eager to begin the role. What I recognize now, 7 years later, is that I was not anywhere near ready.

I am currently one of two VPs and one of three administrators in a school of 630 students in a small city in South Eastern Alberta. Our community is somewhat unique in small town Alberta. We have a beef processing plant on the edge of town that has brought in many workers from abroad. Our community is very diverse which brings benefits and challenges. Our school reflects that make up with approximately a 32% ELL population. Of those students approximately 15% are refugees. I feel very lucky to be an administrator in this building. The difference for me now, is that I feel much more ready than I did 7 years ago.

If I am honest, when I was first an administrator, I was enamoured by a title. At that point, I had spent ten years in the school. My responsibility in the school continued to increase through Department Head positions and as a Director of a large international studies program. As such, I believed the next logical step was into administration. As I look back now, I realize that the motivation to lead was selfish – I wanted more responsibility. As a result, I did an OK job. I managed the schedules of the students and staff. I dealt with issues of behaviour among the students. I conducted staff meetings and worked with parents who were concerned. But, I was not a leader.

Nine years later, I look at my role in a much different way. I feel I am a part of something much bigger than myself. Our school is an amazing place filled with dedicated staff. Our students are diverse and have a lot to teach me. This is a building where I want to be a leader. I want to help create an environment where we (the adults and students) share a desire to improve what we do. Not because what we are doing isn’t good enough but because we can always do better. I want to be a part of a culture of inclusion where students and staff feel they can contribute in meaningful ways.

I won’t pretend that I have the answers as to how this goal will be achieved. I have an idea and a starting point. My starting point is to listen to the voices of the building. I have a vision for where I would like to see us go. But, the first step, is understanding where we are. That will take some time.

Thanks for spending a few moments reading my thoughts. All the best,

Sean

A Time For Everything

Over the past few days, I’ve been working with my admin colleagues on creating the timetable for our High School for the next school year. I’ve gone through this process before at smaller schools so working on this at a large High School was really eye opening. We are a large high school offering many sections of different courses. But, we aren’t large enough for automated scheduling systems to be effective. So, much of the work was done by “hand.” But the entire process has left me thinking about schedules in general.

Timetables have been a component of formalized schooling for as long as formalized schools have existed. Some would argue that the timetable was a reflection of the workforce the students would join upon completion of their formal schooling. This may be the case but I would suggest a more simple reason timetables exist – order. It would be very difficult to organize hundreds of students and staff without some kind of schedule. Of course this goes further in many jurisdictions where education funding is tied to instructional hours, which timetables help to achieve. But, for those of us looking to change education, should we not look to the timetable as a method to elicit change.

I am honest in my perspective about education – I see myself in the progressive camp most days. As such, I look for ways we can organize our schools and classrooms differently than in the past, and ensure we meet the needs of the students and promote their academic and social success. As such, it would seem to me the timetable would be a place to look at for changes. I would argue that, historically (and probably currently), timetables were created to meet the needs of the adults in the building, not the students. Administrators create timetables which meet the requested needs of teaching staff and then fit students into the blocks. What if we looked at that differently? Can students design the timetable? I’m not sure if that is completely possible but I do think they can have a role.

If teachers, students, and administrators looked at times where students felt more successful in certain classes, perhaps we could construct the timetable to reflect those situations. For example, when I taught Grade 12 English right after lunch, many of my students had difficulty focusing. So, I asked them why. They told me they were tired after eating lunch – now, something could be said about teenage choices for lunch, but that’s another post. They often requested that they have P.E. or some other more active course rather than a difficult academic offering. So, if we looked across the board at courses and gathered data about times when the majority of our students were successful, perhaps we could use the timetable to capitalize on this.

Another consideration that I would like to see more of is blended and online learning incorporated into the timetable. Our students in High School have a flex period which would be perfect for this to take place. Students could take courses through Alberta Distance Learning or other locally developed online courses during this period. In that way, we could provide more opportunities for our students and promote flexibility in their schedule.

This seems like a pretty mundane topic but, after five days of creating a timetable, it is on my mind! I would really like to hear other perspectives of timetabling and thoughts on how it can positively, or negatively, impact learning.

Have a great Friday everyone!

Sean

The Journey

I titled this blog “The Journey is the Goal” as I believe this axiom to be true. So often we focus on an end goal rather than enjoying the path that takes us there. I see this to be true in the classroom as well as the highway.

Yesterday, I accepted an opportunity which will take me on another part of my journey. I will be a Vice Principal in Brooks Composite High School next school year.

When I was a full time classroom teacher, I liked to discuss the concept of the journey with my students. When teaching English, we looked at the themes and messages surrounding the journey. We talked about classical representations of the journey in literature. In Social Studies, we discussed the journey of humanity and the various paths people and nations have taken throughout time.

Journeys are a part of human existence – one could argue, I suppose, that journeys are a component of all life on earth. What I find interesting is how I feel when embarking upon a new journey. I always find myself filled with both excitement and nerves. I am excited about what this new journey will bring. However, I am not naive and understand too that there will be challenges. But that is what makes the journey so important – the challenges.

I do not believe that the end goal of a journey is necessarily a destination. I am uncertain as to what the destination will be on this next journey. In fact, I am uncertain if there actually is a final destination. What I am certain about is that I will learn a great deal while I travel this road. And perhaps, that will help make me a better teacher and person.

All the best,

Sean

I Love You To The Moon

Over the past few days, I have been witness to a great deal of ugliness, hatred, and ignorance. I have seen adults refer to LGBTQ kids as evil, shameful, mentally ill, and worse. I am saddened and angered by all of this. I wasn’t sure how to express all of this, so I wrote my boys, Patrick (13) and Andrew (5) a letter. I will share it with both of them.

Dear Boys,

Over the last few days, I have seen some horrible things said about children in our province. Most of these things were said by adults, many who are scared but don’t really know how to say so. It has left me feeling very sad. But, I want you both to know something: I Love You!

At 5 and 13 you have so much yet to learn and so many questions to ask, but you need never question whether I love you – that is without question. More than that, I will love always love you. If you come to me and say to me “Dad, I’m gay,” I will tell you I love you. If you come to me and say to me “Dad, want to live my life as a girl because that is who I truly am,” I will tell you I love you. You will never have to wonder about that.

My job as a parent would not be to question whether you are straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. My job would not be curing you of some affliction, because, you would not be sick. My job would be, as it always has been, to love you and keep you safe.

I will be honest with you and tell you that it might take me some time to adjust to what you told me. But, that is about me and not about you. And no matter how long that takes, you will always have my love, protection, and support. You must also know that I will fight tirelessly for you, as I always have, to ensure you have the same rights and opportunities as other people.  I will be in your corner. I will be your defender, supporter, and advocate. I will never shame you, bully you, or call you names. I must be honest, other people might. But that is all about them and their issues, not about you.

Boys, I don’t care if you are straight, gay, bisexual or transgender. All I want for you both is to be happy and safe. And, to eat your broccoli.

All my love now and always,

Dad